Students for Haiti organization mobilizes on campus with first-ever event
GVL / Robert Mathews
A little over a year and a half ago, geology professor Peter Wampler spearheaded an outreach effort to bring Hatian students to Grand Valley State University through an endowment fund, called Empowering Haiti Through Education. Now, Wampler’s efforts have extended to the student body, with the creation of a new student organization called Students for Haiti, which aims to raise awareness about both the positive aspects of Haitian culture and to shed light on the brokenness the country still faces, especially when it comes to education.
“I think there’s a limited perception of Haitians being students and a lot of people can’t really envision what that would look like, so I think it’s just good to bring these folks here so that people can see that they’re not that different than us, they’re not all poor sitting on the streets – it’s not like that,” Wampler said.
The GVSU Students for Haiti group, which is 36-members strong on Facebook, held their first event last week, bringing three Haitian speakers to the Allendale Campus to talk about education in Haiti – something the club’s Haitian-born president, Cathie Jean, said is an important aspect of understanding the challenges Haiti faces today.
APPRECIATING EDUCATION IN A BROKEN SYSTEM
Jean and the other members of Students for Haiti brought in three Haitian community members to speak. Frantzie Pierre, Georges Dugué and Mario Pierre all grew up in Haiti, and eventually came to the US in pursuit of opportunity. The differences between a Haitian education and the US education that most students here are familiar with are striking; not only in terms of infrastructure, but in practice, as well.
“School is a privilege,” Frantzie said. “When you go to school, you cherish it…when teachers don’t show up, other kids teach each other.”
All three speakers came overflowing with stories of peers educating peers when the system did not afford proper instruction. From copying down textbook information by hand when supplies were slim to overcoming considerable socioeconomic hardships just to make it to class on time, Dugué, Frantzie and Mario’s stories all emphasized the idea that Haiti is facing the opposite problem than that of the US – they have plenty of students willing to put in the work, but a government that does not place enough value on building a sustainable model of education.
“Education is important because the mentality of the people needs to change on certain things and it’s only through education that you can do that,” Dugué said. “Yes, you can say ‘Haiti has been through a giant earthquake, we need to rebuild it,’ but the real rebuilding should be done through the people…let’s say you build buildings that were devastated by the earthquake, but if the people don’t have the education, how can they build anything?”
The lack of infrastructure is a problem for Haiti; a challenge that gives way to perhaps an even bigger one – keeping the educated in the country, something that is easier said than done in a place that is not so conducive to sustainable growth.
“I think (returning) is something that a lot of people want to do, but do they have the means to do it? Because going to Haiti, let’s say you try going back,” Dugué said. “It’s not going to be something easy.”
“This is a big problem that some experts are complaining about now,” he continued. “Because people that are really educated in Haiti – the Haitians that are really educated – they don’t stay in the country because there’s no opportunity. We are vibrant examples of that. If these people aren’t going to be better there, then we better go somewhere. I think this is not a good thing, because the country needs us – but of course they need to attract us, and maintain us there.”
Frantzie who is now a social worker in Grand Rapids and on her way to earning a masters degree, said things like learning disabilities often go misunderstood or completely unnoticed in Haiti, where one-on-one education is virtually non-existent.
“It’s a huge thing, because they’re in class and they don’t even know they have (a learning disability,)” she said. “There’s nobody there…they don’t even notice, they just call them dumb children, then they drop out.”
However, she said she’s determined to go back to Haiti and help students that are silently struggling like she had done once not so long ago.
“I want to go back, and a lot of us want to go back – I think about it every day,” she said. “…If we really need development, I don’t think this is something that’s going to happen without people being educated properly.”
‘HELP THAT WILL WORK’
Wampler said the key to really helping Haiti is by educating Haiti, developing a refrain similar to that of the old “teach a man to fish” adage.
“The need is massive for help that will work, help that will actually be a long-term change,” Wampler said. “There’s a ton of help, but it’s not something that’s really fostering a long-term change from my perspective. The difference would be giving someone your old shirt, versus allowing them to gain the skills to make the money to buy their own new shirt. Giving somebody a shirt doesn’t give them a lot of self-esteem.”
Wampler said that he hopes the Students for Haiti group can extend beyond the Allendale Campus to actual outreach efforts in Haiti, whether it’s building water systems or spending a few weeks teaching students English.
Likewise, Dugué said help, in all of its forms, is much appreciated.
“I would say that it’s good for me to be here and share with you guys,” he said. “I think this is a very good thing that students here are interested in Haiti. Any way that you can help – whether it’s by helping some students com here or by helping schools financially down there – whatever is possible, I think would be great and the people would be very thankful of it.
Most importantly, I think the impact that it will make, even if you cannot see it now, but in the future, will be very important. “
To learn more about Students for Haiti, look them up at www.gvsu.edu/stuey, or visit their Facebook by typing GVSU Students For Haiti into the search bar.
“I just hope that the program that they have – because they are a group of students that have good things in mind for the Haitian people,” Frantzie said. “I really like the project that they’re having and I really wish them the best and I hope we can get some Haitian students out here because I know they’re going to take advantage of the program. They’re going to come here and they’re going to learn and they will become somebody.”